Today’s gospel according to the Roman lectionary is Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water. I have been trying to follow some of the patristic commentary on the gospel of the day from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. I don’t intend discussing this in any length on this blog, but, given that I’ve had Father Louth’s discussion on allegory going through my head, I can’t help noticing how it at least sometimes makes quite a lot of sense for understanding what the Fathers are about. Thus, in the passages below, the details about what the fourth watch means are different, but the fundamental structure is the same, providing an allegorical interpretation that roots the gospel account in a broader salvation history. It points both backwards, seeing Christ as the fulfilment of a process of revelation, and forwards, forwards, pointing to His promise to the contemporary and future Church. There is of course a lot more that one could say about the patristic interpretation of this passage which I have neither the time, the inclination or the competence for, but I’m noting this now because, well, it is quite nice to see theory elucidating actual reading practice!
In the meantime, however, the disciples are harassed by wind and by sea. Amid all the disturbances of the world, in conflict with the unclean spirit, they are tossed about. But the Lord comes in the fourth watch. For the fourth time, then, he will return to a roving and shipwrecked church. In the fourth watch of the night, the measure of his concern is found to be just as great. The first watch was that of the law, the second of the prophets, the third of the Lord’s coming in the flesh and the fourth of his return in splendour. But he will find the church in distress and beleaguered by the spirit of the antichrist and by disturbances throughout the world. He will come to those who are restless and deeply troubled. And since, as we may expect from the antichrist, they will be exposed to temptations of every kind, even at the Lord’s coming they will be terrified by the false appearances of things and crawling phantasms with eyes. But the good Lord will then speak out and dispel their fear, saying, “It is I.” He will dispel the fear of impending shipwreck through their faith in his coming.
Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 14.4, quoted in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 14 – 28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ib, (InterVarsity Press, 2002) 12.
Let us focus on the meaning of this fourth watch in which the Lord comes to his disciples who were caught in the storm. The first watch of the night – that is, the present world – is understood to be from Adam to Noah, the second watch from Noah up until Moses, through whom the law was given. The third watch was from Moses up to the coming of the Lord and Savior. In these three watches the Lord, even before coming in the flesh, with the vigilance of the angels defends the encampments of his saints from the snares of the enemy – that is, the devil and his angels, who from the beginning of the world plotted against the salvation of the righteous. … The fourth watch marks the time when the Son of God was born in the flesh and suffered, the time he promised to his disciples and his church that he would be eternally watchful after his resurrection, saying, “I will be with you even to the consummation of the world.”
Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 52.5, quoted in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 14 – 28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ib, (InterVarsity Press, 2002) 12-13.